(Reuters/Alessandro Bianchi)Pope Francis is shown in this photo.
Pope Francis paid tribute to Christians in the Middle East who have stayed loyal to their faith amid persecution from Islamist militants.
Speaking to thousands of people present for his holiday blessing on the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, in St. Peter’s Square, the pope stated that there are more Christian martyrs now than centuries ago.
The head of the Catholic church made mention of the sufferings being experienced by Iraqi Christians, many of whom managed to celebrate their first Christmas since 2013 after their towns and cities are freed from the control of Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). According to the pope, such is “an example of fidelity to the Gospel.” Francis then praised them for their courage in defending their faith, even though doing so endangered their lives.
The pope added, “Today, we want to think of them and be close to them with our affection, our prayers and even our tears.”
When ISIS moved into the northern regions of Iraq, they required Christians to pay a tax and embrace Islam or die by the sword. Most left their homes and sought refuge in the autonomous Kurdish region.
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Christians have been fleeing their homes in Syria and Iraq at a growing rate as they face targeted persecution. According to an October report from Open Doors UK, a Christian persecution charity organization, Christians comprised 8 percent of Syria’s 22 million population. It is believed that half have fled the country. Meanwhile, in Iraq, there were 1.5 million Christians, but the number has since dwindled to around 200,000 to 250,000.
“We are faced with significant evidence that Middle Eastern Christians are suffering disproportionately, and, in many cases, being targeted because they are Christians,” the report reads.
World Watch Monitor ranks Iraq as second and Syria as fifth in its list of 50 countries where it is most difficult for Christians to live in terms of proclaiming and practicing their faith. The list was based on a survey of religious freedom in five areas of life, namely private, family, community, national, and the church.